Ableton Live and the death of the DJ

abletonLive electronic music used to be a rarity. Before the prevalence of laptops, USB audio devices and performance software, there were really only three choices for a live electronic musician: hardware, samplers, or some combination of the two.

The landscape today is entirely different. In fact, live performances are becoming the norm, even for dance music producers who used to DJ. Take a look at the DEMF/Fuse-in schedule for this year and compare it with the one from 2001. While a good number of people performed live in 2001, only one was billed as live, while in 2005 almost 1/5 of the acts are billed as such. Have audiences grown more receptive to live dance music? Are DJs becoming producers? Probably a little of both, but by and large the biggest change is Ableton Live.

Ask any live electronic musician what they use to perform, and they’ll probably respond with something along the lines of, “I play Live… er, I mean Live with Ableton Live.” The two things, performing live and using Ableton to do so are almost synonymous, and confusingly so since they are both the same word. I have seen probably 40 or so live electronic acts over the past few years, and only one has used something other than Ableton Live**. So how does Ableton dominate the market? They designed their software with one use in mind.

To illustrate this point, let’s take my friend Fred Giannelli, a.k.a the Kooky Scientist. Fred has been playing live electronic music in some form ever since he was a guitarist for Psychic TV. Fred really tries to recreate his studio experience live on stage. For instance, at the massive Tribal Gathering ’97, he lugged 2 Alesis MMT-8 sequencers, an Emax 2 rack sampler, an Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth, a Waldorf Pulse + synth, a Boss SE-50, and some homemade Filterboxes all the way from Boston to England. It was so much gear he had to apply for a work permit just to transport it.

Flash forward four years and Fred is playing live at DEMF with a reduced set of gear, shown in the following photo:

Physical audio devices have gotten smaller, and samplers have replaced some of the larger, heavier, rack-mounted synthesizers, but the gear still fills a table. In the fall of 2001, an unheard of company by the name of Ableton released a product called “Live” that was supposed to revolutionize music performance. Fred discovered Live early on, as the one founder of the company (Robert Henke) also produces techno music. Enamored with their product, Fred quickly integrated it into his performance regime. With a laptop and Ableton, in one year, Fred’s setup had been reduced to half its original size:

With integrated effects and a rock-solid sample playback platform, Ableton Live replaced the synthesizers, sequencers and fx boxes that littered the live PA of the 90’s. While many live performers stuck to their roots, those that accepted Ableton Live continued to see their setups dwindle (Fred carries much more gear than most live acts).

In addition to those artists who had been performing for decades, the ease of use introduced by Live has allowed many producers to move their work simply and easily into a public venue. Producers that once chose records over carrying gear all around the world, a live setup can now weigh a fraction of their records.

Right now Ableton Live has almost 100% of the live electronic performance market, and with the introduction of their new version (4.0), they have started to push their way into the music production market. Why haven’t any of the other music software companies tried to compete? Some have tried to retrofit some performance tools on their existing softare (Reason, Sonar, and Logic Audio), but as far as I know few live dance music artists are switching. The reason? Live was built to be a performance tool, and they have 4 years of a head start on many of these new tools. Unless someone else redesigns things from the ground up, I don’t think they have a chance to compete.

** This was Legowelt at the Opal Lounge in Boston. I think he was using Audiomulch

17 thoughts on “Ableton Live and the death of the DJ

  1. Nice article!
    I just looked into Ableton Live and their non-timeline-arrangement philosophy looks promising. I do miss some softsynts etc but since it supports VST this shouldnt be any problem I guess. I’m really an old fruityloops-user but I’m strongly considering to switch..

  2. ** this may have also been t. raumschmiere or gregory schiff or reinhardt voigt or tube or keepalive or tim hecker or perhaps it was …

  3. does anybody remember when tek fu lugged two desktops and two 8 space racks and a full pa to play in harvard square? i didn’t think so…

  4. whoa.. aren’t they supposed to be the fun years? what’s with the backlash?

    I was referring to my experience. I’m sure there are a host of people who don’t use Live, but the turnover is still pretty overwhelming. The tools used before Live 1.0 numbered large, and now it’s rare to see anything but.

    Doesn’t the Fun Years use Ableton?

  5. I think we were commenting on the following overstatement:

    “I have seen probably 40 or so live electronic acts over the past few years, and only one has used something other than Ableton Live**”

    Certainly it’s been more than one. You can add Mouse on Mars, Autechre, and Kit Clayton to the list.

    BTW: I think that even if you want to bring an MPC to the UK you have to apply for a work permit.

  6. I know what you’re reacting to, I’m just saying that since about 2002 (which I believe was around Ableton 2.0), I personally haven’t seen anyone using anything else. I’m sure they exist, they’re just not in the majority. In fact, back in 2002, I don’t think there was a clear majority.

    I saw Kit Clayton, but that was at the 2002 DEMF. Didn’t see Mouse on Mars, but aren’t they more of a rock band live? Autechre was 2002 as well.

  7. i think you guys are forgetting one important thing here… remember the name of this blog when reading it.

  8. am sorry but dj’in will never die evvvvvveeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, mainly because people dnt fortget there roots and in the dance world people are still usin 1210’s witch for those who dont know are RECORD PLAYERS the big black cd lookin thingys ya kno wht i mean? so no dj’in is not die’in its progressing just the same as when the introduced cd decks

    hope thts clear lol thnx for the enlitenment

  9. Haha this can only be Legowelt that differs from the rest, he’s a genius. Nice article, helps me in my school assignment a lot.

  10. i was reading a FM Magazine when one day i read something like this

    “if DAW software were people… The three big guys (Logic,Cubase,Protools) would be snob jazz music performers drinkin whisky in a fancy bar… and ableton live would be a drug addict german dj, triggerin samples and midi clips in a underground illegal rave party”

    Then of that i install ableton live 5…. right now (live 8) its the main daw on my computer and i love it!!!!

  11. enjoy the music come live in portland we are the best place in the world we dont care if its vinyl or ableton we dont care if u have a low weekly income and you go to community college cuz u live in bike riding distance. We are PORTLAND!

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